Modi supporters in Gujarat. (Amit Dave / Courtesy Reuters)
When the controversial Indian politician Narendra Modi sailed to reelected victory last month in regional elections in Gujarat, it was difficult to find anyone who didn't have the urge to cry. Some shed tears of joy and others of despair, but any reaction in between was rare. Modi, a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is at once celebrated for his dedication to good governance and economic growth and reviled for his autocratic style of governing and alleged role in the brutal violence waged against his state's minority Muslim community in 2002. Given the passionate feelings that surround him, Modi's emergence on the national political scene as India's attention turns to countrywide elections in 2014 could open up a rare substantive debate about the role of government in the world's largest democracy.
After the results of Gujarat's election were announced, Modi delivered a fiery acceptance speech in Hindi (as opposed to Gujarati, his native tongue). It was a tell-tale sign that he is setting his sights on national politics. Modi is widely expected to try and stand as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in upcoming parliamentary elections. The role is likely his for the taking: The BJP has long languished on the opposition benches in New Delhi, its leadership is seen as weak and incoherent, and the party rank and file are demanding a campaign built around competent, efficient governance. Even those within the party and among its coalition partners who find the idea of a Prime Minister Modi abhorrent recognize that there are few plausible alternatives.
Although Modi's entry into national politics could further polarize India, it also carries a silver lining -- one even his detractors should acknowledge. For perhaps the first time in recent memory, an Indian election campaign promises to focus on substantive issues of development and democracy instead of the usual fare of caste politics and clientelism.
This fall, during the run-up to the state election, Modi and his BJP compatriots campaigned heavily on their stewardship of Gujarat's economy. They pointed to the state's high growth rates (between 2001 and 2010, its economy grew an average of over 10 percent each year) and favorable business climate (a recent study found that 12.5 percent of outstanding private-sector investments in India are earmarked for Gujarat). Critics, meanwhile, argued that the state's pro-growth record predates Modi -- according to one estimate, Gujarat recorded the highest rate of growth between 1988 and 2003, a boom for which Modi, who took office in 2001, can hardly claim full responsibility. Further, they maintained, growth in the last few years was thanks primarily mostly to the follow-on effects of national economic liberalization in the early 1990s. In those years, Manmohan Singh, who is the current prime minster but was finance minister at the time, deregulated the private sector, reduced trade barriers, and opened up the economy to greater foreign investment.
All this was to the benefit of Gujarat, which has an entrepreneurial ethos, a large foreign diaspora, and a vast coastline. In the Times of India, one Gujarati businessman recently compared Modi's role in Gujarati's good fortunes to icing a cake: "You have a nice cake and Modi has done a lot of good icing." The debate during the election had no conclusive end, but that in and of itself was not a bad thing: It produced thoughtful policy papers, opinion pieces, and even books by both sides. Voters, too, got in on the discussion of how GDP is calculated and whether it is the best measure of a state's performance.
The fight over Modi's economic legacy also broadened into a larger debate over social welfare. Modi's critics argued that despite high growth rates, Gujarat fares very poorly on a litany of human development indicators. From rates of malnutrition to rates of literacy and infant mortality, Gujarat ranks in the middle or near the bottom of India's states. Modi's retort is that Indians should focus not on Gujarat's absolute position on the scale but on the trends, many of which are improving. He also reiterates that the best solution to Gujarat's developmental failings -- as well as those of India as a whole -- would be to concentrate on pro-growth policies in the hope that the benefits will trickle down to the masses. Modi's opponents disparage his focus on "elite growth," the worst symbol of which, in their eyes, is his dogged courtship of India's biggest business families. This debate, too, would not have seemed out of place in an advanced industrial democracy such as the United States.